Photo and story by William Green / Contributing Writer
Kurdish activist Kasar Abdulla provided a lecture on the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees in America and throughout the world on Monday in the Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building as part of the spring 2018 weekly Honors Lecture Series.
Abdulla’s lecture, titled “America’s First Core Value,” explored both the history of immigration to the U.S. and her own harrowing story of escaping ethnic cleansing in Iraq and making it to the U.S. as a refugee. Abdulla also spoke about the history of immigration globally, with the first waves of early human migration out of Africa, and locally. Abdulla said her theme for the lecture was inspired by the Emma Lazarus poem about immigration, “The New Colossus,” which is famously associated with the Statue of Liberty.
Abdulla has campaigned for immigrant, Muslim, Kurdish and women’s causes and was recognized by former President Barack Obama in 2013 as a “Champion of Change” for her activist work. She is involved with the YWCA, an organization that works to empower women through advocacy and local programming, and currently serves as the director of family engagement for a group of charter schools in Nashville known as Valor Collegiate Academies.
Born in the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan, Abdulla and her family fled the country in 1988 after the government of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began a campaign of attempted ethnic cleansing of the area in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War. Abdulla’s family fled to a refugee camp in Turkey, a country in which Kurds also faced political repression and hostility. Because it was illegal to teach the Kurdish language in Turkey, Abdulla’s mother had to covertly educate her under the watchful eyes of Turkish soldiers using only sticks and the sand on the ground as pen and paper.
“Even though my body was physically caged, the only way my soul could be liberated was through knowledge and education,” Abdulla said.
After four years in the camp, Abdulla’s family won the right to immigrate as refugees to America. Their first home in the country was in Fargo, North Dakota. Abdulla held back tears as she recalled the warm welcome she received in the airport from an American woman who gave her a teddy bear.
“Her smile warmed the airport for me,” Abdulla said.
Once in the country, her parents faced a difficult adjustment, both culturally and bureaucratically. The refugee resettlement program instructed them they had just 90 days to learn English and find a job.
“How many of you could get jobs within 90 days of graduating college?” Abdulla asked the students in attendance.
A few years later, Abdulla’s family moved to the Kurdish hub of Nashville, which is home to one of the largest populations of Kurds in the world outside of the Middle East. After completing high school and arriving at Tennessee State University, Abdulla bucked her parents’ expectations that she would pursue a lucrative career as a doctor or lawyer and chose to instead study sociology and activism.
Abdulla urged the students in attendance to take advantage of the opportunities they have as college students.
“Don’t let people tell you that you are the leaders of the future,” she said. “You’re the leaders now.”
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